Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says the Government has done all it can to get as many Pfizer vaccine doses as soon as possible – but…

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says the Government has done all it can to get as many Pfizer vaccine doses as soon as possible – but throwing more money at the pharmaceutical giant to jump the queue would be “unethical”.In an exclusive interview with the Herald, Hipkins also conceded that many 65s and over thought they would get vaccinated closer to May, and expectations could have been better managed.
And he revealed he wasn’t actually joking when he said on Wednesday that he was so nervous about shipments of the Pfizer vaccine that he monitored live flight-tracker sites – and even livestreams as supplies are unloaded.
“We had a livestream video footage of it being unloaded from the plane. Not every shipment, just the big ones.
“It was underwhelming. The video footage came in, and I was like ‘is that it?’ It was just a couple of chillybins.”
The Government has been under pressure over its vaccine rollout, with our per capita vaccination rate placing New Zealand at 122nd in the world.
Text messages for vaccination bookings have also been sent out to people thought to be in group 3 but who are actually in group 4 – and Hipkins was trying to get a gauge on the extent of the issue.
Many people over 65 years old have also been frustrated at being unable to get vaccinated, while more than 50,000 people in group 4 have been able to get their first jabs.
Hipkins said the Government could have made it clear to those in group 3 that most of them wouldn’t get vaccinated until the second half of the year.
“We certainly could have been clearer right from the beginning that it is going to be a three or four-month process.”
He has repeatedly explained the pace of the rollout as being entirely dependent on Pfizer for the timing and quantity of shipments.
Asked if throwing more cash at Pfizer could have seen more supplies arrive in New Zealand earlier, Hipkins referenced the National government’s controversial $10 million deal – criticised as a bribe – with Saudi businessman Hmood Al Ali Al Khalaf.
“It would be unethical, at best. We’re not talking Saudi sheep here,” Hipkins said.
“We paid a fair market price for the vaccines – and we are doing our bit through [global equity scheme] Covacs to make sure that we’re not acting in a way that’s unethical in terms of global supply of vaccines.”
He added that if Pfizer had offered more vaccine doses earlier, he would have certainly accepted them even though New Zealand is free of community transmission.
But to just throw more money at Pfizer: “That would have been unethical, trying to effectively bribe our way to get more earlier. It’s just not the way we operate as a Government.”
New Zealand has purchase agreements for three other vaccines – Janssen, AstraZeneca and Novavax – and if shipments of them had arrived with Medsafe approval already granted, more vaccines could have made their way into more arms by now.
But none of those three were planned to be delivered by now, Medsafe approval for all of them is still pending, and Hipkins said there is no evidence the approval process would have been any faster if the Government hadn’t decided to put all its eggs in the Pfizer basket.
“I don’t regret making the Pfizer decision. If you look at all of the experiences of other vaccines around the world, Pfizer is by far shaping up to be the best option for us.
“But it is challenging. We’ve had this supply constraint.”
On Wednesday there were about 150,000 doses of the vaccine around the country, enough to continue at the current pace of about 130,000 weekly doses and still have one day’s supply in reserve before the next shipment arrives on Tuesday.
DHBs have managed to steadily increase the rollout without having to scale back, which would have seen appointments cancelled and some clinics potentially closing temporarily.
“We’ve got the modelling absolutely right in that we’re literally down to the very last day,” Hipkins said.
“As long as the [next shipment] arrives on time, we’ll be okay.”
There would have been more breathing room – 80,000 more doses – if DHBs hadn’t been tracking ahead of the rollout schedule.
While the goal is to vaccinate as many people as possible, Hipkine said it looked like about 70 to 80 per cent of the population would likely get vaccinated.
“Sixty per cent is the marker where a lot of countries get to, and then they just plateau. I actually think we will get significantly better than that … I’d say we’re in that 70 to 80 per cent before we start to really have to push.”
Some form of public health measures and border restrictions will have to remain in place, but he said they’d be different to what we have now.
“And sometimes a mix of them, too. There are other infectious diseases that came in pre-Covid, and that we still eliminate, but we use public health measures rather than border measures. So it’ll be a combination.”
Asked how an overseas arrival’s vaccination status might reduce their need to spend 14 days in MIQ, Hipkins said: “I’d say that’s a 2022 conversation rather than a 2021 conversation.”
He said the Government was sticking with the recommended three-week minimum time period between Pfizer doses, despite virologist Chris Smith saying a longer time between doses offered greater immunity.
“If you’re over the age of 40, you should have two doses eight weeks apart. If you’re under that age, you should have two doses 12 weeks apart,” Smith told RNZ last week.
Three weeks was Pfizer’s recommendation, Hipkins said, adding that the longer the wait between doses, the less likely people would get a second jab.
He said the next public health vaccination order would require the majority of the 1600 unvaccinated border workers outside MIQ to get vaccinated or be redeployed.
The Herald has been reporting on the number of unvaccinated workers at the border for weeks, and the Government announced on Monday it was looking to make vaccinations mandatory for more border workers.
“No question I would have liked to move faster on the wider [border] group,” Hipkins said.